Politics

Activists wanted a Middle East cease-fire. They got something else from Dems.

About two weeks after Hamas attacked Israel, hundreds of former campaign aides to Bernie Sanders implored him in an open letter to back a cease-fire. He has yet to do so.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) former aides penned their own letter pressing her on a cease-fire, and protestors gathered outside her home demanding one. She hasn’t gone that far.

Former aides to Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) delivered a similar plea for him to back a cease-fire — and he didn’t budge from staunch support of Israel. Instead, Fetterman told POLITICO that pro-Palestinian demonstrators “should be protesting Hamas, and they should be demanding that the hostages are back home.”

The flurry of pro-Palestinian protests staged by progressive activists across the country and in the nation’s capital may have nudged a handful of new lawmakers to push for a cease-fire: At least three Democratic senators are openly calling for one, and 18 House Democrats have backed a cease-fire resolution. Other party lawmakers have called for a humanitarian cease-fire without signing onto that proposal.

But almost two months since war began between Israel and Hamas, the protestors’ tactics have not generated a groundswell of Democratic support for a plan to end the hostilities. They’ve made more progress toward achieving a far different goal: driving a wedge within the Democratic Party.

Its biggest liberal luminaries, while they haven’t joined the left flank of the House in pushing for a cease-fire, are still pressing for checks on Israel’s military offensive amid concerns about the humanitarian toll on Palestinians. Sanders has pushed for conditions on U.S. aid to Israel, as has Warren — and both have joined many other Democrats in backing the sort of humanitarian pause that’s now in effect in Gaza.

As the pressure campaign for a permanent cease-fire ramped up, however, some protestors stepped up their tactics to gather outside of the homes and offices of lawmakers like Warren, with some facilities vandalized. Cease-fire backers rallied inside a House office building and blocked an exit at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, leading to a violent clash with Capitol Police.

Hill Democrats, staring down an influential young bloc of their base voters infuriated by the party’s handling of the war, have no clear consensus on how to respond. Sanders summed up the quandary in a Nov. 16 statement, saying that “I am not quite sure how you negotiate a ceasefire with a terrorist organization that is dedicated to perpetual war.”

The protests outside of members’ homes have struck a real nerve among party leaders, given that personal threats against lawmakers reached all-time highs in recent years.

“I’ve always considered a politician or a member of Congress’ residence to be out of bounds,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has called for a cease-fire. “I don’t think it wins any points.”

For Jewish lawmakers, the protests’ escalating tactics are a more serious worry. Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio), whose district office was recently the target of attempted vandalism, cited the “history of really horrible, untrue rhetoric and language being used against Jews.”

“The Jewish members have gotten a lot of it, and it is concerning because of what it could turn into,” he said. “There’s a big, long history of this happening, and it doesn’t really end well for the Jewish community.”

Not ‘as artfully as it could have been’

Part of the difficulty faced by some Democratic lawmakers targeted by pro-cease-fire activism stems from the wording of the House’s resolution on the topic, led by Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.). It urges “the Biden administration to immediately call for and facilitate de-escalation and a ceasefire to urgently end the current violence,” adding that the administration should “promptly send and facilitate the entry of humanitarian assistance into Gaza.”

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) didn’t sign on because the resolution wasn’t “written as artfully as it could have been.”

A “meaningful cease-fire,” she said, “it has to be inclusive of the whole region. You can’t negotiate with a terrorist group for a cease-fire.”

Instead, like many fellow Democrats, McCollum called for a humanitarian, regional cease-fire. She said that she still faced recent protests at her office.

Demonstrations at lawmakers’ homes could go too far, McCollum added, “especially if you have young kids or people in the neighborhood get upset.”

The cease-fire push is hardly the first example of progressive activists pushing for the most left-leaning response, only to watch top Hill Democrats triangulate by taking a less liberal approach. The progressive push for a “public option” as part of Obamacare, for example, lived on in the form of Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan long after the health care law passed without the choice of a government-run plan.

And there’s reason for the left to see progress in the recent extension of the humanitarian pause in fighting, which has brought the return of multiple hostages and prisoners on both sides. Senior congressional Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, have hailed the pause.

Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who publicly backed a cease-fire on Tuesday, said colleagues are likely to grow more sympathetic to the protesters’ cause as civilian casualties grow in Gaza.

“There’s a lot of protests that are reflecting people’s real concerns about how many civilians have been killed in Gaza,” Welch said, adding that “it’s all part of the process.”

Other Democrats targeted by recent protests indicated that activists should speak freely, even if it wouldn’t change their positions on a cease-fire.

“I am happy to live in a democracy where everybody gets a chance to air their views,” Warren said.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), whose home saw a cease-fire protest over the weekend, said that “I fully support the ability for people to protest.”

Ripples back home

Meanwhile, the divisions in the party over the war have rattled Democrats at home, too.

In New York City, for example, the war is threatening to upend the goodwill that Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.) has built up with local progressives. Goldman won a close race in his district spanning Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn last year, prevailing over more liberal candidates in a crowded field.

He’s worked hard to build relationships with his critics from the primary. But now he’s facing blowback from local advocates for his positions on Israel and voting to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a lead backer of the cease-fire resolution and the only Palestinian American in Congress.

“Calling for a cease-fire is the bare minimum and an essential step for Goldman to do if he hopes to rebuild trust with and truly represent his district. We urge him to do this,” said Alicia Singham Goodwin, political director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

Goldman said in a Monday statement that “any call for ceasefire that does not address the permanent and unacceptable threat posed by Hamas in the region is in fact a call for unilateral disarmament by Israel. A resolution that would allow for the end of hostilities must not only include the release of all illegally-abducted Israeli hostages but also the full military and political surrender by Hamas and its removal from Gaza.”

There’s also a nascent effort to primary Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) by progressives who say he’s too focused on Israel and too unequivocal in his support for its government — though they don’t have a candidate yet.

California’s progressive movement to demand a cease-fire also seems to have only more bitterly divided Democrats. That’s especially true after pro-Palestinian groups led a raucous, 1,000-person demonstration at the state party convention in Sacramento this month.

State party chief Rusty Hicks condemned the protesters, whom he said inflicted “minor injuries” on a few security guards. The disruption led the party to cancel one night of caucus meetings, and Hicks vowed that party delegates who participated will be “held accountable.”

The protesters had sought to pressure party leaders to back a cease-fire, eyeing Senate candidates Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Katie Porter (D-Calif.). But the party ended its convention with adopting a stance on the topic, and the convention incident hardened the schism.

Notably, protesters are also calling for a restrictions on military aid to Israel that go beyond the conditions Sanders and other progressive lawmakers are backing. Beth Miller, the political director of Jewish Voice for Peace Action, said that in addition to a permanent cease-fire, her group is asking lawmakers to “be objecting to and voting no on sending any more weapons or military funding to the Israeli government right now.“

The notion of any conditions on aid has so far gained little traction outside the progressive left, though some Democratic appropriators had tried to attach restrictions to the Biden administration’s original massive security spending ask.

Fetterman said it’s a hard pass for him, reiterating pro-Israel positions that have irked some of his liberal allies.

“No,” he said when asked about the proposal for conditions. “None.”

Jeff Coltin and Dustin Gardiner contributed to this report.

Hill Democrats, staring down an influential young bloc of their base voters infuriated by the party’s handling of the war, have no clear consensus on how to respond.  

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